UKRI rejects call to treat postgraduate researchers as staff

Funder’s ‘New Deal’ will examine welfare arrangements for PhD students but insists they are better off ‘without an employment contract’

September 26, 2023
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A long-awaited report by the UK’s main research funder into how postgraduate researchers are supported has dismissed calls to give staff status to PhD students.

Addressing the legal status of doctoral candidates in its New Deal for Postgraduate Research, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) notes that there was “extensive debate” among respondents to its sector-wide consultation on whether PhD students should be treated as staff, which in many cases would allow them to access a broader range of state benefits.

Some respondents explained that PhD students with children were unable to receive 30 hours of free childcare or shared parental leave available to university employees in England because they were deemed to be a student. A number of doctoral students with disabilities or children were also eligible for universal credit – which helps workers on low incomes with housing and income support – but missed out on aid because their research council stipend was deducted from any award, states the report.

However, universities that responded to the consultation “largely oppose the idea” of changing the legal status of postgraduate researchers, says the New Deal report. Last year, the Russell Group warned that the change would increase the cost of recruiting PhD students by 60 per cent because institutions would need to pay additional pension and tax contributions, while doctoral candidates would be hit by new deductions for tax, pensions and national insurance contributions.

The move has been championed by the University and College Union’s “postgraduate researchers as staff” campaign, which has called for the UK to adopt practices seen in Germany and Scandinavia.

Nevertheless, in its New Deal report, published on 26 September, UKRI states that “we believe postgraduate researchers can often be best supported to pursue their ideas as students (without an employment contract), with their learning and development based on their individual needs and ambitions so they can pursue the breadth of career options open to them”.

It notes, however, that while the “rights and support for workers have expanded over the course of several decades, those changes have not always also been reflected for PGR students”.

“We will work with stakeholders to consider, where it is appropriate and possible, how to address any gaps,” UKRI says, although it notes that a research funder “reasonably needs to have some limits on how funding (including public funding) is used”.

Rather than change student status, UKRI instead says it will “review UKRI training grant [terms and conditions] with a view to considering where it is appropriate to give UKRI funded students similar welfare arrangements to those provided to workers and others in society, with changes implemented throughout 2023 and 2024”.

It also commits to “identify any gaps in current offers and establish a baseline level of support for all PGR students”, noting that it has already “made provision for UKRI funded students to have reasonable leave and other entitlements”.

UKRI’s conclusion comes more than two years after the New Deal was announced in the government’s R&D People and Culture Strategy, which asked UKRI in July 2021 to examine how PGR students “are supported and developed both practically and financially”, with the aim of enabling “a more diverse range of potential students to consider careers in research”.

Based on responses to its consultation, PhD candidates’ inability to access benefits caused by their lack of staff status contributed “alone, or in combination with the general level of funding available to postgraduate researchers” to “support…[that is] is less attractive to people with a range of individual circumstances”.

While the New Deal does not set out any major changes to postgraduate research support, it outlines how UKRI has helped about 28,000 postgraduate researchers through increased doctoral stipends, which have increased almost 20 per cent in cash terms over the past two years thanks to a £90 million investment.

It also outlines plans to review its practices to ensure that there is more consistency in PhD supervision arrangements and in how careers advice and professional development opportunities are made available.

The New Deal report also highlights the huge shortfall in funding that universities incur when enrolling PhD students: its analysis showed that universities and other research organisations (ROs) “recover just under half (47 per cent) of the cost of PGR from other funders”, which represented a bigger loss than other types of research funded by UKRI.

“This could indicate that funders expect ROs to co-invest more in the PGR grants they provide compared to other grants,” states the report, which suggests that it “may also reflect changes to costs over time through, for example, increased expectations for the wider PGR environment within which the funded studentships sit”.

“It may also reflect ROs’ and their departments’ decisions to invest their own resources in training PGR students,” continues the report, which says “further work to explore what the contemporary costs of PGR are will aid our and the sector’s understanding on the cost-effectiveness of and incentives created by current investment strategies.”

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